Hopefully Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes will become just as famous as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Newbury and Miss Hobbes are the two main characters in George Mann’s Steampunk novel The Affinity Bridge. Like their predecessors, Newbury and Miss Hobbes are detectives and partners. Unlike their predecessors, Newbury and Miss Hobbes have some wonderfully advanced gadgets to help them escape the book’s villains (such as a walking stick that seems to function as a Taser) and are solving crimes that might not be quite possible in 1901—such as the crash of an airship.
The book is masterfully planned and is an interesting combination of sci-fi, detective fiction, and Victorian literature. Science fiction and detective or mystery stories usually fit well together—think Dark City or Neuromancer. Because of the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, science fiction and the Victorian Era are also firmly connected. Mann uses tenets from all these literary traditions to create a beautifully crafted novel.
There are really four mysteries in The Affinity Bridge. The first is a series of murders linked to a blue, glowing police officer. The second is the crash of an airship. The third mystery asks why are all these zombies running around London. And fourth: what happens next? The Affinity Bridge is part of a series—The Osiris Ritual, the next book in the series, is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2010, and it is clear that some of the characters/plotlines, such as Miss Hobbes’ sister who has been institutionalized because she has visions, will be much more important in future novels.
The plot is intricate, and at times, there might be almost a little too much going on. However, Mann is setting up a world and setting up a trilogy. Most likely, and perhaps hopefully, his next novel will have a slightly simpler plot and a more consistent pace. Again most likely because Mann is setting up a world, the first part of the book might move just a little slowly.
Considering the world Mann sets up, I can forgive the slow pace and overly busy storyline. Mann’s London is a study of contrasts—fog and smoke juxtaposed with bright sunny mornings. Both horse drawn carriages and automobiles clatter down the cobblestones. In Mann’s London:
Steam hissed from outlet pipes in great white plumes, whilst water gushed back into the river in a deluge of brown sludge. Huge airships were tethered to the roofs of the hangars, reminiscent of a row of children’s balloons, bobbing languorously in the breeze.
Airships are not the only invention Mann includes. In this Victorian era, the industrial revolution is not the revolution de jour. Instead, Mann presents the automation revolution by introducing “mechanical men” called automations. Essentially a robot, each one is “about the size of a man, skeletal, with a solid torso formed from interlocking breast and back plates. Its eyes were little mirrors that spun constantly on an axis, reflecting back the lamplight”, and they can do just about anything—fly an airship, read, write, and murder.
Mann’s scientific advancements are not only clever; they are cleverly presented. Much like no one doubted Sherlock Holmes when he claimed he could tell that the skeletal remains of a dog were clearly that of a curly haired spaniel in The Hound of the Baskervilles, it’s very easy to believe Mann when he describes Queen Victoria’s artificial respirator:
The Queen was lashed into her wheelchair, her legs bound together, her arms free and resting on the wooden handles that enabled her to rotate the wheels of the contraption. Two enormous tubes protruded from her chest, just underneath her breasts, folding around beneath her arms to connect to the large tanks of air that were mounted on the back of the chair.
Mann’s science is inserted so smoothly into the plot that there is little need to suspend disbelief; instead, I simply believe.
With expressions like “My dear Miss Hobbes, what a splendid deduction” and “I’m using the bloody cane, man”, Mann maintains a Victorian flavor, and this flavor is not limited to turns of phrase. Like many Victorian novels, The Affinity Bridge begins in India, and the fear of disease, infection, or some other monstrosity invading Great Britain from one of the many countries it has colonized is also present.
Equally important, The Affinity Bridge contains a wonderful final twist—a twist that perhaps gives a nod to one of the earliest science fiction novels of all time—Frankenstein, and it contains thoughtful social commentary. Beginning with Miss Hobbes’ concern that the automations will push people out of their jobs and continuing on to the quintessential science fiction question—should we try something just because we are technologically able—the book includes social concerns but doesn’t hit the reader over the head with them in some overly dramatic didactic fashion.
Strong characters round out the story. Sexual tension, opium addictions, familial issues, and an interest in the occult all make for interesting character relations. Both of the main characters were drawn with care, but Miss Hobbes’ character is particularly well drawn. She is a strong woman but not too strong. She can hold her own:
Veronica was standing in the hallway, her feet planted firmly apart, pointing a glowing poker at the throat of a man in a policeman’s uniform. The man, who was tall and well-built, had backed up against the wall, trying to keep the angry woman at bay.
However, she’s not superhero strong, a black belt, or a weapons’ expert. The smell of burning flesh bothers her, she still cares about her wardrobe, and she doesn’t mind being asked to make a pot of tea.
When The Affinity Bridge ends, many of the mysteries are solved and many ends are tied up, but a few details—the importance of Miss Hobbes’ sister and Newbury’s interest in the occult, for example—still linger, and I’m anxious to see how these plot lines continue in the next book. The Affinity Bridge is a very well done piece of science fiction, but I suspect The Osiris Ritual will be even better.